Thursday, 18 August 2016

Rome’s aborted conquest of Germania (short story)

Road to Disaster

Porta Westfalica 9 A.D.
A wet and miserable summer had left the rivers of Germania Inferior swollen.  When September came, the three legions stationed on the river Weser prepared to leave for their winter quarters on the Rhine.  Rumours about an uprising had induced them to change their route. Accompanied by thousands of civilians, slaves, women and children, the endless army train headed west under a dreary sky.
Towards the end of the first day, the dull grey sky darkened, and by the time the Romans were pitching their tents, the heavens opened and poured rain.  Instead of taking shelter in the camp, the squadron of Cherusci scouts fastened their cloaks and rode on to mobilise the support of other tribal auxiliaries against the insurgents. 
The next morning it had stopped raining, but a gale front off the North Sea was moving full speed in their direction.   In the afternoon the murky skies had filled with menacing clouds and before long curtains of heavy rain billowed before them.  The ochre country road that was leading them through fields and patches of forest had become muddy, while wagons of the baggage train were repeatedly getting stuck.  Tops of trees broke off and came crashing down upon them, causing great confusion.  Forward movement was becoming more and more difficult, especially on the banks of the many streams crossing their path.  Though the Romans were well protected by their waterproof cloaks, their shields and kits hanging on furcae over their shoulders were weighing them down.
Looking over his shoulder, Marcus Caelius, senior centurion of Legio XVIII, his phalerae prominent, was trying to make eye-contact with his second in command marching some 150 foot behind him.
“Flavius !!” Caelius had now turned around, shielding his eyes with his left hand from the lashing rain.
“Sir?!  I can hardly hear you in this bloody weather!” the optio of the first centuria cried.  

”What’s going on back there? I can’t see a damned thing from here!”
“Don’t know, sir!” the man cried cupping his hands around his mouth against the strong wind.  “Can’t see any more than you can!”
“Didn’t you hear a signal?” -  “Not sure, sir!”
Looking at the cornicen on his left, the primus pilus growled “Maximus - sound your horn and ask what’s up, by Jove!” Under his breath he grumbled  “We should never have taken this bloody road in the first place.  If something happens, we’re in deep shit.” The horn of the first centuria sounded.
Marcus was in a bad mood.  Because some nearby tribes were rebelling, they were marching six abreast, in foul weather through unfavourable terrain, encumbered by a great number of civilians.  Under these circumstances, he would never have allowed their Cherusci scouts to leave the camp last night in the first place.  Apparently, he was not alone in this opinion. As the scouts galloped away, he had seen how Lucius Eggius, the praefectus of Legio XIX, had ridden up to Governor Publius Quinctilius Varus, vehemently gesticulating in protest.

Marcus cursed as he picked a wet leaf from his brow that had blown into his face.  Ever since they had broken camp that morning, the weather had worsened.  The wind from the northwest was now quickly becoming a storm. The march slowed down to a walk and occasionally to a standstill, as heavy rains came pelting from the sky.  Behind them, sixteen thousand soldiers and civilians plus thousands of horses, mules and wagons had reduced the drenched surface of the country road to a ploughed-up mass of water-filled cart ruts and countless slushy holes.
It had all started twenty-five years ago, when an alliance of Germanic tribes had first ambushed a Roman cavalry unit, and subsequently defeated a division led by the commander of the armies of Gallia Belgica.  The most embarrassing thing was that the bandits had captured the standard of Legion V “Alaudae”, Rome’s first legion recruited in the provinces.  The attack on a Roman legate was just the excuse the emperor needed for an official invasion of Germania Magna. Marcus’ Eighteenth Legion, stationed in Gallia Aquitania, had been transferred to the west bank of the Rhine, after which they had been on constant campaigns ever since.  In little more than fifteen years the whole of Germania Magna had been subjugated, apart from the lands of the Marcomanni in the south.  Had the legions not been withdrawn to suppress an unexpected uprising in Pannonia, Marcus mused, they would have conquered them as well. He wiped the rainwater from his eyes.

The sounding of horns roused him from his thoughts.  “We are being attacked!” Flavius hollered through the storm.
Marcus cursed “Mehercule, not here!”  Turning to the cornicen on his left, he asked  “Where – and how many?”
“A few miles behind us, the baggage train of the Seventeenth”, the man muttered. “A few hundred bastards coming from the woods on both sides.”
The horn of the first centuria sounded, as the legatus of the Seventeenth was shouting orders.  More horns started to sound.
“Dammit” Marcus swore.  “Well done, Varus. We’re in the worst possible position to defend us.”  Turning towards his men, he hollered orders against the strong wind.  Metal parts clanked as the legionaries dumped their furcae and grabbed the helmets hanging down their breasts.  Fastening the cheek-pieces under their chins, they stood close to each other, back to back, tensely eying the woods three hundred feet away on both sides. In spite of his many years of experience, Marcus’ heart was thumping and his mouth had gone dry.

But nothing happened. Buglers were issuing messages.  “Sounds like they are concentrating on the rearguard, sir!” Flavius shouted.  After a while the horns sounded the “all clear”, and the legionaries were ordered to fall back.  From the rear of the column a horseman galloped towards General Varus, who rode in front of the Eighteenth.  Not much later Marcus Oppius, one of the two praefecti castrorum, ordered a detail of legionaries to select a location for a camp with five centuries to screen the construction works.  Outside the camp Aulus Sempronius, senior centurion of the Seventeenth, was organising a mass funeral for the fallen legionaries and civilians.


When Governor Varus called the commanding officers to his tent that night to discuss a plan of action, Arminius had still not returned. The rain was drumming vigorously on the canvas roof.  Flaring torches were lightening the inside of the praetorian tent, while smouldering woodblocks in the braziers spread agreeable warmth.
“Gentlemen”, Varus started looking gravely, “Rebels have attacked the baggage train of the Seventeenth and wounded or killed almost a thousand men. All pack and draught animals are dead or disabled.  I’ll have everything destroyed that we cannot transport or do not strictly need. I don’t want anything to fall into false hands.”
e was a moment of silence.  A sudden gust of wind made the tent-ropes rattle and the flaps of the entrance fluttered aga
Therinst the canvas.
“Do we know who they were?” Lucius Ceionius, the second praefectus castrorum, asked.  “No Lucius, I’m afraid we don’t, but I guess one of those rebellious tribes.” Varus responded.
“With permission, sir” Lucius Eggius reacted disgruntled.  “Given the fact that you let those Cherusci ride away last night, this attack was to be expected.”
Varus frowned at him, paused a few seconds and then answered quietly  “You already vented your displeasure this morning, Lucius. What are you trying to say?”
“That Arminius and his scouts didn’t ride away to mobilize tribes against the rebels, but against us!”
“Nonsense!  The Cherusci made peace with us several years ago and Arminius is a Roman citizen and tribune in the Roman army, who has lived with us ever since he was a boy.  Someone who has attained the dignity of equestrian rank ...” Varus raised his hand to stop Eggius from interrupting him “... and who was decorated because of his valour during the Pannonian war.  Why would an honourable man like him betray his own army?”
Eggius’ face flushed with anger as he blurted, “You seem to forget that we are not his own army, sir.”  Pointing to the ground, he added “This is his native country, and to him we are nothing but invaders.  Whose side do you think he’s on when it comes to it?”
Varus scowled at Eggius, but kept silent. Lucius Ceionius raised his voice and said “I agree with Eggius, sir.  Segestes and the likes may have expressed their gratitude that Roman justice has brought peace to their lands, but in my experience Germans cannot be trusted.  They are a race of born liars and conspirators who are either at your feet or at your throat!”
Visibly offended, Varus replied, “I’m sorry, Lucius, but I won’t have this.  There’s no reason why Arminius or any of his Germans would act against us.  Even the emperor’s personal guard is made up of German troops from the lower Rhine. May I remind you that they have proved to be more trustworthy than our own soldiers?  Moreover, in my dealings with German leaders, I have so far only experienced a sense of true and warm friendship.”
Ceionius retorted caustically  “Then who of our true friends is attacking us and why has our great and honourable friend Arminius not returned to his beloved army?”
Varus gave him a hard look.  Trying to remain composed he took a deep breath and continued  “I take it that Arminius is staying the night with his own tribe.  As you know, his scouts found out that the Marsi and Bructeri are planning a rebellion, so I agreed that he should mobilise reinforcements with the Cherusci.”  There were murmurs among the assembled officers. Varus glowered and continued  “I know his father Sigimer personally, and I can assure you that the Cherusci are as dedicated to the Pax Romana as we are.”
Complete silence. Then Eggius asked  “What about the wounded, sir?
“Those who cannot walk will be transported in wagons.”  Varus paused a moment.  Looking Eggius in the eye he proceeded “We shall continue as planned.  If we turn back to take the normal road through Marsi and Bructeri territory, chances are that we’ll be attacked by much larger numbers.  We cannot take that risk with so many civilians in our train.”
A few officers nodded in agreement.  Varus continued  “Moreover, under these weather conditions, the road that we’ve come by has become practically unusable.”  He paused and said, “We have no reason to fear those rebels, gentlemen. We’re Roman soldiers.” He paused again and repeated emphatically “Roman soldiers!”  He let his words sink in, waved a limp hand and added  “Dismissed!”
Outside the tent Marcus Caelius, who as a first-rank centurion had been present during the discussion, mumbled “Bollocks! The Germans know full well that in this kind of terrain we are no match for them.”

Point of No Return

It had been pouring incessantly all night.  The next morning the storm had abated and the rain let up, but black clouds announced another dreary day.  When the army broke camp, a pillar of thick dark smoke from the burned remains of the attacked baggage train rose into the air.  A few soldiers had noticed that a squadron of cavalry had headed back east.
The country road, which had now changed from dark yellow to a deep brown, was leading them closer to a range of densely wooded hills.  Around them the forest with sturdy beeches and oaks was getting thicker.  Trees interrupted by fields, riddled with streams and birch groves, started to line the road. Laden with baggage and arms, the long column of troops and civilians was toiling its way up a gradual slope.  Another downpour that came gushing from the skies made the dark soggy road ever muddier.  Instructed to wear their helmets permanently, the legionaries felt the sweat trickling down their backs, making their attire steam as they plodded through the rain. 

Roman soldier, R.L.Museum Bonn

It was still raining when at midday they heard a cry from the woods, followed by a loud whizzing sound.  Within seconds, the rain had become a lethal cocktail peppered with hundreds of missiles, coming down on them from all sides.  The hiss of arrows mixed with shrieks of agony.  Legionaries and civilians alike dropped to in the mud clutching throats, arms and legs.  Beside him Marcus Caelius saw his signifer Caius Petronius pitch forward with an arrow in his neck, buried to the fletching.
“Split up, quick – kneel behind your shields, left face and right face!  Stay together and cover your backs, goddammit!” Marcus cried.  There were thumps and clangs as arrows hit wood or metal. Someone screamed as an arrow found exposed flesh.  Marcus quickly ducked down behind his shield when an arrow snickered off his helmet.  Another flight of arrows hailed down on them.
After a while, the barrage of arrows stopped.  The rain continued.  On both sides of the road, hundreds of German warriors had appeared from the woods, spears, swords and shields swaying as they moved slowly forward.  They stopped two hundred feet away to begin the barritus.  Low at first, shield over mouth for reverberation, the roar built up to an unearthly booming sound.  As the sound still hung in the air, the Germans started a trot. Spears flew.  The Romans took them on their shields, the blades thumping hard into the wood.  Then the Germans attacked full speed, yelling.
Marcus cried “Pila ready, volley ... Now!”  Most of the heavy projectiles hit home, penetrating shields, arms, legs and torsos.  Left and right, Germans tumbled down, roaring in agony, blood pouring from their wounds.  Next, the lighter pila flew through the air and landed in the mass of charging Germans, punching into shields and unprotected bodies. Some Germans staggered around, trying to pull the heavy spears from their shields.  Others collapsed, swords and spears dropping to the ground.  The Romans had risen from their kneeling position as the lines collided with a crash.
Futue, cacator!” Marcus yelled at the German coming straight for him.  Punching the boss of his shield into his face, he made a swift curve with his right hand, driving his gladius into the soft belly of the dazed man.  As he pulled the sword free, the German slumped to the ground.  Further up the column, the Roman cavalry was swarmed by hordes of barbarians. Wounded animals were slipping in the mud, rearing and throwing their riders.  Some galloped uncontrolled towards the legionaries, running everyone in their path underfoot.
From the corner of his eye, Marcus saw a giant German lunge at his signifer Maximus.  The hulk swung his long sword over his head and plunged it down at the Roman with all his might.  As the blade crunched into the soldier’s small round shield, the metal shield rim flew off, and with a loud crack it split in two.  The blow knocked Maximus off balance. He staggered for a moment, sliding in the mud, and hurled the broken shards of his shield aside.  Marcus roared to distract the giant.  Looking aside, the German forgot to protect his head.  In a flash, the centurion had moved sideways and shoved the point of his gladius under the man’s chin, up through his mouth, piercing his tongue and shattering the palate.  Jarring his sword into the German’s skull with all his force, he snarled “Take that, you bastard!”  He felt the warm blood gush over his hand, down his arm and into his armpit.  As he jerked back the blade, the man came down like a tree.
Before Marcus could react, another German had punched a shield into Maximus’ face, sending him sprawling to the ground. Taking a long stride, he planted his spear into Maximus’ throat.  Growling, Marcus jumped forward, burying his blade deep in the German’s unprotected side.  The man let go of his spear, his eyes wide open with shock as he took the bite of the razor-sharp metal.  There was a sucking noise as the short blade pulled free. Blood spurted from the deep wound while the German sagged moaning onto the muddy ground.
The squishing noise of running feet behind him made Marcus whirl.  He braced himself as a German crashed into his defence, sword swaying over his head.  Ducking away to the right Marcus stabbed obliquely upward, in one side of the attacker’s throat and out the other. Bright red blood sprayed over his arm.  The German gurgled as his throat filled with fluid. Clawing at the iron, he stared into Marcus’s eyes. Marcus twisted the sword before he pulled it free.  T
he German fell face forward into the mud with as soft thump and did not move again.
A long low trumpet-call sounded.  As if pulled by invisible strings, the Germans turned around and rushed back to the woods.  Frustrated, a number of legionaries grabbed spears sticking in bodies lying around and hurled them after the fleeing attackers.
A long eerie silence followed.  Far away a cuckoo called.  Marcus only heard the rain splashing on his helmet and his panting.  The attack had drawn off as fast as it has started, hundreds of dead bodies lying in the mud.  Further west there was another trumpet-call as a different part of the long column was attacked.


That night, the atmosphere in the praetorian tent was frosty.  Lucius Ceionius broke the ice, asking gravely “How many casualties, sir?”
“Close to two thousand, prefect.” Varus nervously rocked on his sella, looking sullen. “Good, that’s it then” Marcus Oppius said.
 “What do you mean?” Varus asked.
“What do I mean?  Three thousand casualties in two days!  If we don’t wish to be exterminated, we must either go back or head north for the river.”
There was a long pause in which Varus seemed to stare at his feet.  Then he lifted his head and said  “No, gentlemen, there’s no way back.”  Bringing his hands to his forehead, he closed his eyes.  He cleared his throat and he continued, looking up again  “I dispatched a turma of cavalry this morning.  They’ve just returned.  Our summer camp has been taken. Both the camp and the cohors we left behind have been completely destroyed”
There was a long silence.  After what seemed ages, Gnaeus Lerius Flaccus, tribunus of the first cohort of the Nineteenth ventured “This cannot be a coincidence.  Arminius!”
Varus sighed and gave him a long look. “The only thing I know is that we have lost another five hundred men and have nothing to fall back on.  We must continue west and head for the Rhine.”
“Excuse me sir, but why don’t we go north?” Ceionius asked.  “We’re in no position to defend ourselves here.”  He looked at the others, who were nodding in agreement.
“What makes you think the situation further north is any better?” Varus asked.  There was a long silence.
  “Arminius hasn’t returned, has he?” Eggius inquired.

“No, he hasn’t.” Varus answered, clearly on edge.
“So we are still waiting.” Varus said. “What would you advise us to do then, Lucius?” he asked sharply, glaring at him under his brows.
“What Oppius said earlier, sir, to head north for the river and wait for the fleet to pick us up.”  The others muttered in agreement.  Varus sighed again and stared at the ground for a while. Looking up he said with a sombre face  “No gentlemen, we’ll stick to this route.  Without local scouts, the road to the north is not an option, certainly not in this type of weather. We’ll continue as planned.  The meeting is closed.”  With these words, he turned his back at the officers and disappeared in the private area of the praetorian tent.
“Sol bless us all.” Ceionius murmured. “This man will be the death of us.”

Final Blow

The next day they set out before dawn.  It had stopped raining, but everything was shrouded in a milky blanket of impenetrable fog.  When the legions marched away from their walled night quarters, dampness penetrating to their bones, everyone seemed depressed.  There was only the clanking of equipment and the sound of feet squelching in the dark mud. In the hope of attracting less attention, some muleteers had muffled the bronze bells round the neck of the remaining pack-animals with handfuls of grass.
The situation was far more serious than Varus had cared to admit.  Since a large number of mules and horses were lost, the army’s whole baggage train had to be burned or abandoned, along with everything that was not strictly necessary.  The remaining wagons were to transport the wounded.  As these got repeatedly stuck in the mud, the progress of the rest of the army was delayed. Soon the column had become fragmented.
The first soldiers that emerged from the woods entered a foggy agrarian landscape.  On the left there was a range of low hills, hemming in the fields to the south.  By midday the persistent fog was still clinging to the vegetation, when the head of the army reached a narrow corridor at the foot of a densely wooded slope.  Here, a fast stream came gurgling down the hill on the left only to disappear into a huge area of wetlands that spread to the north.  A bank of mist was rolling in towards the south, shrouding the tops of the trees and chilling the air.  Because of the high water table, the corridor between the foot of the hill and the marshes was only two hundred feet wide. All seemed quiet.

German warrior, R.L.Museum Bonn

From the dense woods on the slopes thousands of pairs of eyes had been watching the approaching army train.  German warriors on the hill exchanged signals with others who were hiding behind long, carefully camouflaged ramparts, topped with palisades that curved with the shape of the hill, and nicely blended in with the landscape.  When the vanguard of the Roman army had passed the ramparts, the trap was sprung.  Hundreds of screaming Germans leapt out through hidden gaps in the turf walls.  Rushing forward, hurling spears, they threw themselves on the remaining squadrons of cavalry.
From the woods above it started hailing arrows, rattling on Roman shields and thumping into wood and flesh.  Within moments riders and their mounts went down in a thrashing tangle of limbs and equipment.  Horses tried to rise, but fell back again with shrill cries of pain.  Others reared in agony, with wooden shafts protruding from chests, rumps or necks. In a matter of moments, dozens of riderless horses galloped about aimlessly, bucking and kicking in pain, arrows and spears sticking from their wounds.  Others stampeded into the distance, trampling everything underfoot or getting stuck in the marshes.  Floundering through the narrow pass between the slope of the hill and the wetlands, legionaries were hindered by cavalry units which kept crashing into them.  Marcus saw the legate Numonius Vala with his squadrons of horse flee the melee and head for the marshes.
Close to Marcus two mules had broken free from their wagon, whinnying and braying, still wearing their harnesses.  Desperate to escape the fighting, they stormed towards the turf walls.  As one of the animals tried to jump over a collapsed part of the wall, its hindquarters got caught in the construction.  Through the impetus of the miscalculated jump it fell down hard and broke its neck.  Riddled with arrows and spears, the second mule reared up in pain, stumbled and fell sideways against the front of the rampart.  Its shrieks were muffled as the wall, manned with struggling Germans and Romans, slowly collapsed on top of it.
“Crouch!” Marcus cried to the remainder of his century, his shield heavy with two spears and several arrows.  The Germans charged, shrieking their war cries as they saw some of the enemy go down.  “Stay in line! Stay in line, dammit!” Marcus cried. “Cover your backs!”  Hurriedly getting down behind his shield on one knee, he held his protection well out.  A long blade aimed at his head swung down on his guard. Splinters of wood flew as the enormous sword penetrated the shield.  The impact jarred his arm.  Getting up, he brought his right arm over the damaged shield and thrust his gladius at the German’s face.  Taking the edge of the blade on the rim of his shield, the man forced it up.  He tried to knock the centurion over by violently pushing his shoulder against the centurion’s guard.  Suddenly, Marcus stepped back, and the German tumbled forward, his momentum carrying him onto Marcus’ sword.  The man’s eyes bulged with surprise, as it entered his belly. Pulling back swiftly, Marcus ducked as a whooshing sound came from the right.  The tumbling shaft of a spearhead hit the side of his helmet hard.
Lucius Eggius cried “Storm the ramparts! With me, with me!”  Kicking and slashing his way through the charging Germans, Marcus scrambled up the turf walls with a handful of legionaries.  On top of the ramparts he managed to disable a couple of Germans that were trying to spear him from behind the wooden breastwork.  Kicking a passageway in the damaged palisade, Marcus jumped down the other side of the ramparts and landed on his knees.  As he was about to get up, something heavy came swinging against the side of his head.  The impact knocked him against the ramparts and made the sword fall out of his hand.  His mouth filled with the metallic taste of blood.  In a haze he saw how a German brandishing a club over his head, intended to give him another blow.  Feeling for the hilt of his pugio, Marcus pulled it free.  Panting, with a strength born out of desperation, he lunged forward and dug his dagger deep into the German’s leg.  The man shrieked and backed away, teeth bared with pain, the dagger sticking deep in his right thigh.  Then there was loud bang at the back of his head. He just felt the terrible dull impact through his helmet.  A violent wave of nausea surged up from his stomach as the pain hit him.  The muddy ground rose as everything went black.

The column was now being attacked by fresh German troops from all sides.  A line of German horsemen, many of them dressed like Roman auxiliaries holding spears and shields, came thundering down the column towards the first cohort of the Nineteenth.  Spotting the transverse horse-hair crest on the helmet of the primus pilus, their leader approached the Roman in full gallop.  Riding up to the centurion the German stopped his horse just in front of him, its feet skidding in the mud.  As the Roman recognised the rider his eyes blazed.
“Fight me, Fabricius”, Arminius said, with a malicious grin as he slid from the saddle.  The Cheruscan’s spatha hissed from the scabbard. 

“You treacherous bastard!” the centurion retorted furiously.  Holding his shield up, he lunged at the Cheruscan’s face with his sword. Arminius parried the blow with his oval shield a split-second too late.  The sharp point grazed his eyebrow and laid it open to the bone.  Instantly a sheet of blood gushed from the shallow wound and flowed over his face, blinding his left eye. He swore and gave ground.  Blinking at the blood he tried to wipe it away with his sword-hand.  Fabricius thrust his gladius at the German’s face again.  This time the Cheruscan was faster.  Ducking his head behind his shield, he slammed his body against the centurion’s guard with all his might.  Knocked off balance, Fabricius lost his footing and fell backwards in the mud. Immediately, the Roman was surrounded by five other Cherusci, pointing their swords at his throat. 
“Segimund, take him to the pits” Arminius said, dabbing the wound on his stern with a piece of cloth.  With the army being massacred around him, Ceionius realised that all was lost and surrendered.  Eggius had already been killed, while Varus was clutching an arrow lodged just below his collar bone.  Realising that his army had been taken apart and that there was no escape, he slid off his horse.  He spoke with his bodyguards around him. Sinking on his knees, he removed his silver cuirass. Putting the pommel of his gladius on the ground, he held the sword with both hands and carefully placed its sharp point under his ribcage.  He closed his eyes, mumbled a few words and with a deep moan fell on it.  A large area of his white and purple tunic turned bright red. He jerked a few times and was still.  When it became known that Varus was dead, several of his commanders followed suit, leaving their troops leaderless in what had become a killing field.


Catching the smell of burning flesh, Arminius wheeled his mount towards the small pillar of smoke rising from the foot of the hill.  The mounted Cherusci kicked their horses to follow him.  His face filled with anger as he saw that Varus’ bodyguards had set fire to an improvised funeral pyre. 

“Well, well, just as I thought!” Arminius exclaimed, dismounting with a leap “The coward is trying to escape his well-deserved fate.”  Grabbing the charred body under the armpits, he dragged it away from the fire.  Varus’ guards did not venture to intervene.  Propping the corpse against a tree stump, the German swung his spatha and struck its undamaged head clean off its shoulders.  Picking it up from the mud by its short grey locks, he held it high and handed it to his aids “Keep this in a safe place.  I intend to make a gift of it.”  Before he jumped back into the saddle, he kicked the headless body with his foot.  “Do with the rest of him as you please.”

The battle died down before the day was over.  The area was littered with corpses as far as the eye could see. In parts, dead bodies were piled on top of each other, two, three, four high, concealing the ground.  Germanic troops looked to their wounds, others started to go around through the dead, wounded and dying.  Weapons were confiscated and Romans who could not walk were dispatched.  Those who were spared got a rope around their necks. Their hands were bound behind their backs, while they were tethered to one another by their ankles.  Defeated and dejected, left with nothing but their clothes and armour, they were marched off into the woods, where they had to spend the night in deep large pits.
Flavius, the optio of Marcus Caelius, had been able to escape the massacre with Marcus Crassus Fenestela.  Lightly wounded, they had successfully played dead.  When things had become quiet, they had crept from under their fallen comrades.  Ripping up their tunics they bandaged each other with improvised compresses to staunch the blood. Easily able to pass for Germans, they changed their outfits with those of fallen warriors.  While the enemy was busy looting the dead, the Romans led two ponies away from the battlefield and hid in the woods.  Once darkness had fallen they galloped away in the direction of Castra Vetera on the river Rhine.

Judgement Day

That night in the woods, the pitiful remainder of what had been three legions not even a week ago was standing ankle-deep in cold smelly water, shivering in the dark at the bottom of large deep pits.  All of them exhausted and many of them wounded, the men huddled together, roped to each other by their necks, hands still bound behind them.   The stench of faeces, urine, sweat and blood mixed with sneezes and coughs and the sound of chattering teeth.   The ropes had wrenched their necks, the flesh chafed and raw.  Above them, Germans armed with spears and bows were looking down, keeping a watchful eye.

Tombstone of Marcus Caelius, Rheinisches Landesmuseum Bonn

Morning broke with a low-hanging fog.   Groups of armed Germans were lowered down the pits on ropes.   Below they untied the centurions and optiones, indicating that they were to be pulled up.  At ground level, the mud-covered captives were herded down a lane flanked by dozens of small, freshly dug deep holes, the heaps of earth in front of them still damp.  A matching number of neatly lined up crosses were lying on the ground behind the holes. Ordered to take off their armour, the officers were tied to the timbers.
Soon the air was filled with the dull knocking of hammers.  There were screams and moans as the long iron nails ruthlessly cut through gristle and bone and were driven into the wood with force. Next, the crosses were pulled upright.  As the heavy wooden stakes plunged into the holes, shocks tore through the pierced limbs, causing new cries of anguish.
Subsequently the first-rank centurions and higher ranking officers were dragged out from the dank pits and herded to a nearby grove, where a row of stone altars was waiting for them on a raised ground.   When a tall bearded priest in a black robe climbed into view, followed by a group of others in similar attire, they were roughly shoved down on their knees.
The priest gestured for silence.  Only the whimpers from the crucified centurions could be heard. He began speaking in a low, deep voice. Marcus Caelius looked questioningly at Fabricius who was standing next to him.

“He’s saying that the leaders of the vanquished enemy are to be sacrificed to Donar”, the answer came in a low voice. Eying the altars Marcus asked, more nervous than interested “Who’s Donar?”
“Their version of Jupiter”, Fabricius said under his breath.

“I see” and with a wry smile Marcus added “I suppose we could take that as a compliment”.
Lucius Ceionius, the highest surviving officer in rank, was to be sacrificed first.  Touching the large stone slab on the altar with a long butcher’s knife, the priest indicated that the camp prefect had to lie down flat on his back.  Four Germans grabbed him by the arms and legs, while the priest uttered a formula in his guttural language.  Putting his free left hand under the prefect’s chin, he jerked the victim’s head back and slashed the throat with a smooth movement. Ceionius did not utter a sound.  A fountain of blood sprayed from the gaping neck wound.  A second priest caught most of the red fluid in a bowl. Releasing his grip the first priest waited until the body’s convulsions had stopped, whereupon he shoved the corpse off the altar. It fell to the ground with a thump.
One by one, the bearded priests in black systematically butchered the officers on the row of altars.  When Marcus’ turn had come, he looked at the sky.  Reclining on his elbows to lie down on his back, he said a quick prayer for his wife and children. While the priest jabbered his formula, Marcus felt how he was pressed down on the slab.  Then the hand came below his the chin and his head was jerked back. There was a crack followed by a sharp pain as the knife slashed through the cartilage.
When the priests had finished their gory job, the corpses were dragged away from the altar and stripped of valuable objects. The heads were severed from their bodies and nailed to the trunks of the surrounding trees
At nightfall, the German dead were burned on large funeral pyres.  Flames swept up the sides of the high piles of wood, creating eerie shadows of the bystanders and the surrounding trees.  Every now and then logs exploded, sending a shower of sparks into the night sky, which rose, drifted and then fell to earth.

The next day, the Germans left the battlefield to return home, taking the surviving legionaries and civilians as slaves.  The stripped and maimed bodies of thousands of killed legionaries, civilians and pack-animals remained where they had fallen.
Three legions had been wiped off the face of the earth.

Monday, 8 August 2016

The Thessalian Cavalry

Originally published in Slingshot, issue 299, March/April 2015 - the Journal of the Society of Ancients

The Role of Cavalry in Ancient Greece

Other than in most other parts of Greece, where the character of the local landscape rendered the large-scale deployment of cavalry practically useless, the inhabitants of the Thessalian plain had systematically fielded mounted warriors since early classical times.  The quality of the Thessalian cavalry had even prompted bordering regions, such as Boeotia with cities like Thebes and Orchomenos to create their own cavalry units as well.

Though other Greek states did occasionally hire Thessalian cavalry units whenever the need arose, there is no evidence for the structural use of cavalry in central and southern Greece before 450 BC, nor is there any mention of the deployment of significant Greek cavalry units during the Persian wars. Whenever cavalry was used at all before that date, it was mainly deployed as a tactical shock weapon to shatter infantry formations.
The almost ritualized way in which the Greek city states waged their regular and relatively small-scale hoplite wars before the Persian Invasions may have been another reason for the limited use of cavalry. Moreover, cavalry was mainly the domain of the ruling aristocracy, who were not very eager to lose an expensive horse in armed conflict, if this could be avoided. Wars between city states were staged primarily by free citizens (propertied farmers and artisans), who were able to afford the necessary bronze armour suit and weapons. This group is estimated to have made up a third to a half of a city-state’s able-bodied adult male population.
During the Persian Invasions of 492-90 and 480-479 BC Greek armies were suddenly confronted with large contingents of cavalry. Battles like that of Plataea in 479 BC demonstrated that hoplites could only move with extreme caution when enemy cavalry were around. As a logical response, the Athenians decided to increase their cavalry forces; the fact that during the first Peloponnesian War (460-445 BC) the allied Thessalian cavalry had betrayed them by defecting to the Spartans in the battle of Tanagra in 457 BC, gave them all the more reason to do so.

The Persians had demonstrated that cavalry was a great tactical weapon. Apart from making frontal attacks in the hope that the enemy formation would break, cavalry were ideal for covering an army’s flanks. More importantly, because of its speed a cavalry unit could execute sudden flank or rear attacks, cover retreats and pursue a fleeing enemy. So lethal was the impact of flank and rear charges, that the mere threat of such an attack became sufficient to halt an otherwise victorious phalanx.
At the battle of Potidaea in 432 BC, for instance, in which Athens – with Socrates featuring as a hoplite – fought against the combined armies of Potidaea and Corinth, the Potidaean cavalry kept close to the Athenian infantry to prevent its hoplites from leaving the phalanx and trying to catch unwary peltasts. By the same token, the cavalry’s proximity to the enemy infantry permitted friendly peltasts to move closer to the enemy phalanx, which increased the effectiveness of their attacks.
In general, a hoplite phalanx was very inflexible and prone to disruption when moving at anything faster than a deliberate march. When trying to run forward to catch a fleeing opponent over uneven ground, dead bodies, wounded soldiers or discarded equipment, a phalanx would start to fray at the edges and break up into smaller groups, with individuals pushing forward to secure victory. With well-led cavalry around, such hoplites would be an easy catch.
Consequently, after the “discovery” of the tactical value of cavalry units, less than a half a dozen major battles during the subsequent Peloponnesian War of 431 to 404 BC would still be fought purely by hoplite phalanxes. Except for at the First Battle of Mantinea in 418 BC, cavalry had now started to play a critical role in determining the outcome of these battles.

Thessaly, Land of Horses
Located in east-central Greece between the Pindos Mountains and the Aegean Sea, Thessaly is one of the few regions in Greece bestowed with broad and fertile plains. Regular summer rains and Greece’s broadest stream, the Pineiós River and its tributaries, have made Thessaly’s landscape ideal for the cultivation of surplus grain and the breeding of cows and horses on a grand scale.

Thessaly plain with the river Pineiós and the Pindos Mountains (photo by Evgeni Dinev)
As a consequence, ever since early Antiquity Thessaly was dominated by landowning aristocrats who also controlled the few small cities that developed relatively late in the fifth century. Horses gradually became a status symbol and it did not take long before Thessaly came to produce the finest horses and horsemen in Greece, which is reflected in the opening sentences of Plato’s “Meno”, for instance:
“SOCRATES: Before now, Meno, Thessalians had a good reputation among Greeks for being such good riders and for being so rich. Now, it seems, they are also famous for their wisdom, particularly your friend and fellow citizen, Aristippus of Larisa” (Plato, Meno, St. II, p.70 B; dialogue set in 402 BC).  In Thessaly the best horseman was a most highly honoured man, and Thessalian participation in the Olympic Games almost always concerned horse races. Small wonder that the quality of Thessalian horses was proverbial [6]. One of the most famous horses of Antiquity, Alexander’s charger Bucephalus (“ox-head”), was a Thessalian horse. It had cost its owner the staggering price of thirteen talents - enough for a Greek labourer to live on for a hundred years. It is said that the close bond between the two was such that Bucephalus would not allow any other rider upon its back. When it was stolen by some local Asian tribesmen, Alexander threatened to have the entire tribe slaughtered unless the horse was returned – which worked.
Also the Persian and later Macedonian armies had access to some fine horse breeds, of the most famous which are the Nisaean horses (from the Nisaean plain in Media), which are first mentioned by Herodotos in the fifth century BC. These horses were tall by ancient standards, possibly sixteen hands high, very muscular and well able to bear the weight of heavier equipment.

modern Pindos pony
Native to the Pindos mountain range in Thessaly and Epiros, the ancient Thessalian horse used to be noted for its courage and beauty. The modern Thessalian horse, known as the Pindos pony (αλογάκι της Πίνδου) or Thessalonian, however, is not what one would call a beauty nowadays, and it probably differs from its ancestors who are believed to have been largely oriental types and horses brought to Greece by the Scythians. A direct descendant of the old Thessalian breed developed by the Greeks it has a rather coarse head – was this the reason why Alexander’s horse was called Bucephalus, perhaps? –, a slim neck, a long back and pronounced withers. The eyes of the Pindos are very small considering the size of its face, making this one of its most recognizable traits. Its quarters are not very strong and it has a tail that is higher set, which could be due to its Oriental descent.
The strong legs are fine in bone, with small joints, and the hooves are very tough. The coat colours are mostly dark, such as bay, black and grey and they stand at up to 13 hands (1 hand = 4 inches = 10 cm) high. Buried in the frozen soil below the Ukrainian steppe, archaeologists have found Scythian tombs containing remarkably well-preserved horses that were typically red bay in colour and standing between 14.2 and 15.1 hands high.
The Thessalians branded their horses. It is known that the animals from Larisa were branded with a centaur, those from Pherai with an axe, and those from Pharsalos with a bull’s head.

The Thessalian League

In the third and second millennia BC ancient Thessaly was the site of many cultures and, around 2500 BC, home to an extensive Neolithic culture. Mycenaean settlements have also been discovered, for example near modern Volos on the east coast of the region at the sites of Iolkos, Dimini and Sesklo. When the area was invaded between 2300 and 2000 BC by a new Indo-European people, it was inhabited by Thracians, who – like the native Phrygians – spoke a language closely related to what would later be called Greek. Greek is considered a split from Thraco-Phrygian that took place in central and southern Greece under the influence of the foreign tongue(s) introduced by the conquering tribes. Woudhuizen states that Thraco-Phrygian is so closely related to Greek, that it must be assumed to have once formed a linguistic continuum with the latter.
According to Herodotos (VII-176), the Thessalians were a Thesprotian tribe, which migrated from the Aeolian Greek city-states in the north-western region of Asia Minor. In reality, however, the migration may well have taken place much later, and in the opposite direction. During the Dorian invasion in the twelfth century BC, Aeolians from Thessaly most likely migrated across the Aegean Sea to the island of Lesbos and Asia Minor, where they called the region of Aeolis after them.

Ancient Greek dialects
During the Mycenaean period Thessaly was also known as Aeolis or Aeolia. In their own Aeolian Greek dialect they called the region Petthalia (Πετθαλία). These p/t and s/t sound-shifts nicely correspond with the difference between the Thessalian word for “four” pettares (πέτταρες), and the Ionic Greek tessares (τέσσαρες).

According to mythical traditions, various regions of Thessaly were settled by the Dorians; first in Phthia in the south and later in Hestiaiotis in the west, either at the foot of the Pindos Mountains or between the massifs of Ossa and Olympus. Here, they became associated with a royal house descended from Herakles (read: the Thessalians - hence the club frequently pictured on Thessalian shields), who during his labours visited the region of Hestiaiotis and helped the Dorians defeat their enemies, the Lapiths. In return Herakles (the Thessalians) received a third share of the land and the kingship from them. 

The Parian Chronicle (chiselled on a stele found on the Isle of Paros, inscribed and erected around 263 BC) says that Phthia was the homeland of the Hellenes and that this name was given to those previously called Greeks (Γραικοί). Homer refers to the "Hellenes" (Ἕλληνες), as a relatively small tribe settled in Thessalic Phthia, with its warriors under the command of Achilles. Their name derives from Hellen (Ἕλλην), the mythological father of Aeolos (Αἴολος), Xuthos (Ξοῦθος) and Doros (Δῶρος), who were themselves progenitors of the primary tribes of Greece: Aeolus of the Aeolians, Dorus of the Dorians, and Xuthos through his sons Achaeus and Ion of the Achaeans and Ionians. The myth was probably invented when the Greek tribes started to separate from each other and to spread to other areas of Greece to indicate their common origin.
Subsequently, under the leadership of Temenos (a son of Herakles), an army of Thessalian Dorians moved to the Peloponnesos, drove out the last representatives of the Pelopids, the descendants of the mythological Pelops (Πέλοψ), and divided the Peloponnesos (“The Island of Pelops”) in three parts. Temenos himself took Argos, the sons of Aristodemos received Sparta and Kresphontes was allotted Messenia.  Though the literary traditions tally well with the linguistic evidence, there is no hard archaeological evidence for the underlying facts of the story.
To come back to what Herodotos states about the origins of the Thessalians, a modern Greek regional administrative unit is still called Thesprotia, after the Thesprotians, an ancient Greek tribe that inhabited the region in antiquity. Situated ca 240 km from the modern capital Larisa, in the far north-western corner of Greece, it borders Albania to the north and the Ionian Sea to the west.

Political Organisation

Having settled Thessaly, the Aeolians reduced its ancient inhabitants to the condition of penestai, or serfs, analogous to what happened when the (Thessalian?) Dorians invaded Lakedaimon and forced the locals to become helots (εἵλωτες). Taking possession of the most fertile districts, the Aeolians compelled the communities of Perrhaebia, Magnesia, Achaean Phthiotis and other neighbouring peoples to submit and to pay them tribute (cf. the Spartan perioiki, or περίοικοι). As in Lakedaimon, the population of Thessaly consisted of three distinct classes:

  • The penestai, or serfs;
  • The subjected tribes, who inhabited the districts not occupied by the Thessalian invaders. They were free, but had to pay tribute and had no share in the government;
  • The Aeolians, who ran the public administration and whose lands were cultivated by the penestai.
As with Sparta, democracy did not develop in the Thessalian cities.  Around 500 BC Aleuas Pyrrhos (Πύρρος = the "red-haired") of Larisa, founder of the dynasty of the Aleuadai, was the League’s first tagos (commander). Bearing the archaic title of basileus, he claimed to descend from Herakles and divided Thessaly into four districts or tetrarchies – Phthiotis, Hestiaiotis, Thessaliotis and Pelasgiotis. The name of the latter district presumably refers to the indigenous people that inhabited the area before it was occupied by the Aeolian conquerors. Populations identified as "Pelasgian" spoke a language that the Greeks identified as “barbaric”, even though some ancient writers described the Pelasgians as (proto-)Greeks. 

Ancient Thessaly
The hypothetical Pelasgian realm in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age is identified as the region between the fertile Sahara, the northern Mediterranean shore and Western Central Asia.
These four tetrarchies formed what would become known as the Thessalian League. The Thessalian ethnos was loosely united as a federation (koinon). In wartime the Thessalian koinon was led by a chosen magistrate called archōn, archos, or tagos. Although the archōn formally was a primus inter pares, the office was normally held by powerful men such as the notorious tyrant Jason of Pherae. Jason forcefully united Thessaly in around 375 BC with the help of a reformed army loyal only to himself and transformed the region into a significant military power. Although the Hellenism of the Thessalian landlords was never in doubt, in cultural terms they tended to be more akin to the nobility of Macedonia than to southern Greek elite families.

Macedonian Influence
Macedonian kings had intervened in inner-Thessalian rivalries already in the early fourth century and had established bonds of friendship with Thessalian dynasties, in particular with the Aleuadai of Larisa. In 358 BC Philip II strengthened these ties by marrying the Aleuad Philinna. A more profound connection between Thessaly and Macedonia was established when Philip II intervened against Pherae in 355 BC, following the assassination of the Thessalian tyrant Jason. Taking advantage of existing rivalries among the Thessalian nobility, Philip was able to gradually establish his hegemony by means of a divide-and-rule policy. He expelled his political opponents, but lost no time in securing good relations with those oligarchs who remained behind and he cemented his alliance by marrying also the noblewoman Nikesipolis of Pherae, a woman of the house of the killed Jason.
With the support of his friends among the Thessalian nobility, Philip was elected archōn of the koinon of the Thessalians for life, perhaps in 344 or 342 BC. This enabled him to reform the administrative structure of the Thessalian federation to gain more direct access to the military resources of the country. Being elected archōn, Philip did not deem it necessary to incorporate the Thessalian League in the Macedonian state.
The most substantial reorganization was the creation of ten military districts, presumably around civic administrative centres. These decadarchies did not replace the existing four tetrarchies, but the latter presumably served only civic functions. The creation of the decadarchies further divided the Thessalians and later had the additional advantage of providing the Thessalian koinon with ten votes in the council of the League of Corinth, which elected Philip both hegemōn and stratēgos at the establishment of the League in 337 BC. The charter of the League of Corinth stipulated that in case of war each member-state was to provide the federal army with 500 foot and 200 cavalry for every vote that state had in the council.
Like his father, Alexander knew that he needed efficient cavalry to defeat the Persians on their own territory (which was extremely suitable for cavalry actions) and the Thessalians therefore played a crucial role in his military plans. Apparently, the Thessalian aristocracy joined Alexander’s expedition force enthusiastically, presumably because strong personal ties existed between Thessalian noble families and the ruling dynasty of Macedonia, and because the promise of honour and booty agreed with the mentality of the Thessalian aristocracy.
At the death of Philip in 336 BC, Alexander was confronted with the opposition of Philip’s former Thessalian opponents, but the resistance was quickly overcome. After the pacification of the country, Alexander addressed the council of the Thessalian koinon, whereupon the council decided to elect the young king archōn and to accept him as the new hegemon of the Greeks. When Alexander crossed the Hellespont only one year later, he could count on the support of 2,000 heavy cavalry from Thessaly. This number is in accordance with the obligation of the koinon to send 200 horse soldiers for every vote that the Thessalians had in the League of Corinth, and these ten votes in turn corresponded with the ten military districts into which Philip had partitioned the country.

Thessalian light cavalry man

The Thessalian Army

Even though the natural conditions of Thessaly had always been very favourable for cavalry, the Thessalian state did not exclusively rely on its famous cavalry arm. Xenophon (ca 430-354 BC) reports that the Thessalian army consisted of hoplites, cavalry and peltasts. The cavalry was most probably composed of nobles, a group of selected freemen and maybe even trustworthy penestai.
Saal argues that, when Xenophon refers to Thessalian hoplites, he probably uses the terminology only to make a difference between the lightly armed penestai and the more heavily armed infantry (hybrid-hoplites), who were most likely equipped with the large hoplon-shield. When referring to the Thessalian army, Aelianus Tacticus, also known as Aelian (second century AD), avoids using the term hoplites altogether and speaks of innumerable lightly armed troops.
When discussing the Thessalian army, Herodotos does not use the word hoplites either. Saal argues that Thessalian heavy infantry cannot have been hoplites in the usual sense of the word, as the social structure of the state was such, that there was little place for heavily armed hoplites, who were normally composed of free citizens, i.e. propertied farmers and artisans.
Also Sekunda argues that the dividing line between hoplites and peltasts seems to have been blurred in Thessaly. Figures on coins and reliefs appear to be half-way between hoplites and peltasts in equipment, wielding javelins, but using hoplite shields.
As the League’s first tagos, Aleuas the Red(haired) assessed the army’s strength at 40 horsemen and 80 infantry per kleros (κλῆρος), or lot. It seems that there were 150 kleroi, for the total army of the League numbered 6,000 cavalry and 12,000 infantry. It is possible that the kleros was also responsible for furnishing a number of peltasts. The League’s second tagos, called Skopias the Old, fixed the tribute the Thessalian perioiki had to pay to the League, both in revenues and in military contributions.
Though horses and horse riding were typically the domain of the aristocracy, Saal considers it unrealistic to assume that all 6,000 cavalry were noblemen. In his view, free Thessalians as well as trustworthy penestai are likely to have served as cavalry, too.

Riding Equipment, Dress and Weapons
The distinctive dress of a Thessalian nobleman was a rider’s dress, consisting of a short oblong-shaped cloak worn over a tunic, and a broad-rimmed sun-hat. The cloak was fastened in such a way that two points hung down both in front and behind the wearer. These cloak ends used to billow out behind the galloping horseman and gave the cloak its Greek nickname of “Thessalian wings”. Thessalian riding dress was adapted to the climate of the landlocked plain surrounded by mountain chains. Very hot in summer, very cold in winter with heavy spring and summer rains, the local cavalry wore the characteristic extravagantly wide-brimmed variation of the Greek yellowish-tan felt or straw petasos (πέτασος, or sun-hat). While this kept out the heat and dust of the plain in summer, it was also an ideal protection against the heavy rains. A long, enveloping dark brownish-red woollen cloak with a white border, kept the wearer warm in winter, cool in summer and dry in the rainy season. Whereas the Thessalian tombstones universally show the cloak worn over a short-sleeved tunic, the Athenian vases show the cloak worn without a tunic.
It is likely that early Thessalian cavalry were lightly armed, whereas later Thessalian cavalry had developed into heavy cavalry. Light cavalry were equipped with short spears that were used as missiles. Heavy cavalry typically used the long thin cavalry spear or kamax (litt. stake or vine-pole) which was primarily designed to “pig-stick” enemy infantry. Additionally, cavalry were equipped with a sword for close combat. To avoid injuring the horse, riders did not wear greaves.
Polybius (Histories IV.8.10) states that “The Thessalian cavalry are unstoppable when operating in formation, but slow and awkward when dispersed”. Duncan Head infers from this statement that (later) Thessalian cavalry tactics resemble those of heavy rather than light cavalry. This is all the more likely, as Thessalian coins of the fourth century BC show horsemen in “a muscled cuirass with short pteruges, but no shoulder flaps, and a helmet of an uncertain type”.
At the battle of Heraclea in 280 BC Pyrrhus had included a contingent of heavy Thessalian cavalry in his army, modelled on Alexander’s Companions (ἑταῖροι/hetairoi), which charged and routed the Roman cavalry.

Saddles, Reins and Shields
Since classical Greek cavalry did not guide their horses using the pressure of their legs, as the Celts and the North-American Plains Indian did, they had to rely on the bridle. According to Vergil, the Thessalians were the first to use bridle reins and to train and breed horses for war missions.
However, shields proved to be a problem for early ancient Greek cavalry, since handling a shield and reins in one hand is awkward. Especially with a severe bit, to maintain good control over a horse only a very small movement of the hand is necessary. To parry blows with small shield in his bridle-hand, a rider would have to move his shield arm in all directions, and in doing so, he would jerk the horse’s mouth all over the place.
To be able to keep his left arm still, a shield needed to be so large that it covered much of the body without needing to be moved. The standard large Greek shields of the time, however, would have made the rider more top heavy and caused problems in full gallop. It is therefore that early Hellenistic cavalry armed with lances are never portrayed with shields. 

From the middle of the fifth century BC Saka cavalrymen seem to have introduced a smaller elongated version of the Persian wicker and leather spara for cavalry use. Because of its lightness it would interfere less with riding and its construction was perfectly suited as a defence against arrows.
Saddles to stabilize the rider’s equilibrium were not known either. Instead, horses were ridden bare-back, or horsebacks were padded with a thick flexible blanket or animal skin that shielded the rider’s legs from chafing and horse sweat. Not until the early structured saddles (the famous Celtic “horned” saddles) were developed, enough security was offered riders to be able to carry heavier shields.
The earliest structured seats for riders found to date come from Scythian tombs and date probably from the early or mid-fourth century BC. These consists essentially of two leather cushions attached front and back by a wooden arch, one cushion resting on either side of the horse’s spine when in use. These offered the rider improved comfort, as well as distributed his weight either side of the horse’s spine to prevent damage.

Cavalry Tactics and formations
Whereas the power of the phalanx lay in solidity, that of the cavalry lay in motion. Stationary, the horse was a large and vulnerable target, but motion transformed its bulk into a potentially devastating force in both a physical and psychological sense.
Since it was very difficult for cavalry to attack a hoplite phalanx frontally, it needed gaps in the enemy ranks. This was also an important psychological factor for the horse. Because the horse is a flight animal, it needs to be able to think it has somewhere to go. It is difficult enough to make a horse charge at a dense mass of men, especially when these are armed with spears. When the cavalryman is not fully committed to the charge, the horse will sense this and will also hesitate.
At the same time, on the receiving side of a cavalry attack, as a group of horsemen bore down on a phalanx out of a cloud of dust, each individual hoplite had to fight an inner battle as well. Even though he might have been instructed - as Xenophon told his men - that he was safe as long as he stood firm in his place, the approach of hundreds of thundering hooves must have been daunting. There was always a possibility that the psychological impact of charging cavalry could cause enough panic in a phalanx for a determined cavalry attack to succeed. This happened at Phalerum in 511 BC, when one thousand Thessalian cavalry charged and sent the Spartans rushing back to their ships with heavy casualties.

The Thessalian Rhomboid Formation
According to a tactical treatise (Tactics) from the first century BC by Asklepiodotos (hence nicknamed Tacticus) the typical formation used by Thessalian cavalry in battle was the rhomboid, a lozenge-shaped wedge formation, which is thought to have been developed in the seventh century BC. Asklepiodotos (Tactics 7.2) states that “the Thessalians were the first to use the rhomboid for their ilai in cavalry encounters, and that they did so with great success both in retreat as in attack”, being able to rapidly change its direction by alternating leaders posted at its four points.
Though manoeuvring thus must have been difficult, the Thessalians were “the superiors of all other [allies] in fighting qualities and horsemanship” (Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica XVII.57.3-4) and were “unstoppable when operating in formation” (Polybius, Histories IV.8.10).
Flavius Arrianus, also called Arrian (ca. 85 – 145 AD), attributes the origin of the (Macedonian cavalry) wedge formation to the Scythians and the Thracians. He asserts that the rhomboid formation was invented by the Thessalian Jason (ca 375 BC), whilst arguing that its origins were even more ancient (Tactical Handbook – Technè Taktikè, 16.6.). 

Silver drachme from Larisa, 410 BC
Speaking of Scythian and Thracian cavalry tactics, note that Thessaly was inhabited by Thracians before the Thessalian Aeolians arrived (see above: The Thessalian League, Protohistory) and that they also occupied central Macedonia until the foundation of the Kingdom of Macedonia in the early seventh century, after which they were forced to move eastwards.
Asklepiodotos states that the Thessalians placed their best men on the sides of the rhomboid and the very best of these at the angles. The man at the fore angle was called an ilarches (ἰλάρχης), the one at the rear angle an ouragos (οὐρᾶγός) and those on the right and left angles plagiofylakes (πλαγιοφύλακες).
There are two ways to form a rhomboid, one is by rank and the other by file. The first is formed with each subsequent rank containing one more horseman up to the middle rank, and one less from then on. Thus, the first rank is occupied by the ilarches, the second by two men, the third by three and so on. In this type of rhomboid, there are no files, as each subsequent rank is arrayed with its men in the intervals between the men in front. The rhomboid by file is formed with each subsequent rank containing two more troopers, so the men are posted in files, the first rank being occupied by the ilarches, the second by three men, the third by five, and so on.
According to Marsden, theoretically, the best figures for creating a perfect rhomboid are 169, 196, 225, 256 and 289 horsemen (Marsden 1964, p. 70). After reviewing various possibilities and taking into account the larger size of the Pharsalian ilē, he concludes that the Thessalian cavalry was divided into ten ilai: nine consisting of 196 men each and one consisting of 256 men. None of the ancient historians of Alexander, however, mentions this formation and its historicity have often been doubted by modern historians.
On the other hand, the rhomboid must have been practical in that it gave a unit a flexibility that was especially useful for defending operations. In the battles of Issus and Gaugamela, for instance, the Thessalians’ task was to protect the left flank against Persian cavalry attacks while the Companions charged forward from the right. For this task the rhomboid may have been better suited for holding one’s ground than the simple wedge formation preferred by the Companions. Not only did the narrow frontage of the rhomboid formation mean that wheeling to change direction could be done relatively quickly, as the formation just followed the leader “as is the case in the flight of cranes” (Asklepiodotos, Tactics, 7.3.), the pointed shape of its front made it “easy to cut through any enemy formation” (Arrian, Tactical Handbook 16.7.).
This is what fitted particularly shock action, since when a wedge charged, only the lead rider needed to find a gap for himself to ride at and the rest of the squadron would pile into it behind him. The passage of the lead horse widened the breach for the two or three horses immediately behind and they for the next rank and so on.

The Thessalian Cavalry in Alexander’s Campaigns
Like Thessaly and Thrace, Macedonia was one of the few regions in Greece capable of raising large numbers of cavalry with approximately the same quality as the cavalry supplied by the Persian nobility. Ever since King Philip II cavalry played an important tactical role in the Macedonian army. Philip created a large force of heavily equipped cavalry to act as shock troops. Giving them heavy armour (cuirasses and helmets of the “Phrygian” type), he further developed the new tactical wedge formations that Jason of Pherae had invented to enable his cavalry to take a leading role in battle. Alexander would replace the “Phrygian” helmet with the Boeotian type, which gave the cavalryman more protection to the face and shoulders and sword-cuts.
As with the Thessalian cavalry, the building block of the Macedonian cavalry was the ilē, a squadron consisting of 200 men, commanded by an ilarch. According to his calculations, each of the regular ilai were ca. 47 m. deep and about 37 m. wide, the depth of the Pharsalian ilē being around 55 m; the entire length of the front when all ilai stood together in line (with gaps of 37 m) was about 700 m.

Of the various non-Macedonian troops that accompanied Alexander the Great to Asia in 334 BC the contingent of Thessalian horsemen stands out in the first place, if only because Thessalian cavalry constituted by far the largest Greek unit in Alexander’s army.  According to Phil Barker Alexander took 1,800 Thessalian cavalry, 600 allied Greek cavalry and a single ilē of Paionian light javelin cavalry. In Marsden’s opinion the total number of Thessalians must have been 2,020.  Unlike other Greek troops the Thessalians fought in the great battles at the Granicus, at Issus and at Gaugamela.  Not only did they participate actively in these battles, they were given important tactical responsibilities and played a crucial role on the battlefield, where invariably their task was to defend the left flank against the Persian cavalry.

Strootman states: “Because of the personal ties that existed between the noble families of Thessaly and the royal house of Macedonia, the Thessalians … were the only Greeks with any real zest for the Persian expedition. They could regard themselves as privileged participators … led by their own archōn, whereas the others could only lament the degradation of enforced service under a foreign dictator. It is for this reason that, while Alexander made full use of his Thessalian cavalry…, the Greek infantry is never found in the fighting line”.
Indeed, it seems that the Thessalians actually sympathized with the Macedonians and their king, who was also their own archōn, even showing a certain eagerness to outshine the Companions, the Macedonian elite cavalry, on the battlefield. Moreover, the relatively numerous Thessalians were highly honoured by the Macedonian king and richly rewarded by him for their services. When Alexander demobilized his Greek allies after the defeat of Darius, more than a hundred Thessalians, instead of returning home voluntarily, re-entered the army as mercenaries and followed the king into Central Asia.

Some Macedonians from my own collection (25mm)
Hammond notes: “Thessalians of the class that served in the cavalry may have viewed service on Macedonian campaigns in company and competition with the Macedonians of the Companion class as something congenial in itself besides offering its changes of profit or advancement”. Being aristocrats, the greatest potential advancement for these Thessalians was the opportunity to attain glory in war and thereby increase their families’ status in the home country.
Fighting as heavy cavalry, i.e. operating in close formation, the Thessalians may have been armed in a similar fashion as the Companions. Thessalian aristocrats may even have influenced their Macedonian fellow nobles in this respect in the course of the fourth century. Relatively heavy armament will have been necessary to bear up against heavily-armed Iranian cavalry. This means that the Thessalians may have worn linen cuirasses, helmets, pteruges and greaves. Bronze armour and shields will have been exceptional. The rhomboid formation, if historical, suggests that they were armed with a long cavalry lance, probably supplemented by a cavalry sabre (kopis).
As said above, in combination with a lance the use of a shield is not likely. The use of horse armour seems improbable, too. According to the Alexander Mosaic from Pompeii and the Alexander Sarcophagus in Istanbul the horses of the Companions had no bodily protection, presumably because Greek horses were not heavy and strong enough.

Bibliography and suggestions for further reading

    • “Alexandros” – Thessalian Cavalry, Slingshot issue 77/42
    • Barker, Phil – Alexander the Great’s Campaigns, Patrick Stephens Ltd., Cambridge, 1979
    • Borza, Eugene N. - In the Shadow of Olympus: The Emergence of Macedon, Princeton University Press, 1990 (revised edition 1992)
    • Connolly, Peter – The Greek Armies, Macdonald Educational, London, 1977
    • Connolly, Peter - Greece and Rome at War, Macdonald Phoebus Ltd, London, 1981 (reprinted by Greenhill Books in 1998 and by Frontline Books in 2012)
    • Crowley, Jason - The Psychology of the Athenian Hoplite: The Culture of Combat in Classical Athens, Cambridge University Press, 2012
    • Hammond, Nicholas G.L. and G. T. Griffith - A History of Macedonia, Vol. 2: 550-336, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1979
    • Victor Davis Hanson - A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, New York: Random House, 2005
    • Head, Duncan - Sarissaphoroi and Thessalians, Slingshot issue 65/28-9
    • Head, Duncan et al.– Armoured Thessalians, Slingshot 92/28-9
    • Herodotos – The Histories, Penguin classics, Penguin Books, London, 1972
    • Hubbard, Timothy – Thessalian Cavalry, Slingshot issue 71/38
    • Marsden, Eric William - The Campaign of Gaugamela, Liverpool University Press, 1964, Liverpool monographs in archaeology and Oriental studies, 1964
    • Saal, Patrick - Das Thessalische Militär, eine Domäne der Kavallerie?, Bachelor Thesis for the Helmut Schmidt University 2009, Dept of History, GRIN Verlag GmbH, Norderstedt 2010
    • Sekunda, Nick - The Army of Alexander the Great, Men-at-Arms 148, Osprey Publishing, London,1984
    • Sekunda, Nick – The Ancient Greeks, Osprey Elite Series, Osprey Publishing, London, 1986
    • Sekunda, Nick – The Persians, in Warfare in the Ancient World, Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd, London, 1989
    • Sidnell, Philip – Warhorse, Cavalry in Ancient Warfare, Hambledon Continuum, London 2006
    • Silver, Caroline - Guide to the Horses of the World, Elsevier Publishing Projects, Lausanne, 1976
    • Sprawski, Slawomir - Were Lycophron and Jason Tyrants of Pherae? Xenophon on the History of Thessaly, in Tuplin, C. (ed.), Xenophon and his World. Papers from a conference held in Liverpool in July 1999, Stuttgart, 437-452, 2004
    • Strootman, Rolf - Alexander’s Thessalian Cavalry, Talanta XLII - XLIII (2010-2011), pp. 51-67, Proceedings of the Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society
    • Weekley, David Josiah - The Role of Greek Cavalry on the Battlefield: A Study of Greek Cavalry from the Peloponnesian Wars to the Second Battle of Mantinea, Patrick Henry College in Vexillum, The undergraduate journal of Classical and Medieval studies, Issue 3, 2013, funded by the Western Washington University
    • Webber, Christopher – The Thracians (700 BC – AD 46), Men-at-Arms, Osprey Publishing Ltd, Oxford, 2001
    • Worley, Leslie J. - Hippeis, The Cavalry of Ancient Greece, Westview Press Inc, Boulder, CO, 1994
    • Woudhuizen, Fred - Ethnogenesis of the Greeks in Ethnicity in Mediterranean Protohistory, BAR International Series 2256, Archeopress, Oxford, 2011